Progressive rock behemoths Yes emerged from London in the late 1960s. Starting out as a psychedelic pop band, they became one of its leading exponents of the emerging genre of progressive rock. Despite a revolving crew of members – bassist Chris Squire was the only constant over the twelve albums covered on this list – the band enjoyed consistently brilliant players in their five-piece lineups. The most beloved Yes lineup featured the stratospherically high lead vocals of Jon Anderson, the thunderous bass and harmonies of Squire, the jazz-influenced drumming of Bill Bruford, the spidery guitar and harmonies of Steve Howe, and the dazzling keyboards of the caped Rick Wakeman.
The commercial zenith of Yes was in the early 1970s with albums like Fragile. The band alienated fans and critics alike with the overlong Tales From Topographic Oceans in 1973. But they rebounded with more excellent albums in the mid-1970s, before breaking up after 1980’s Drama. They reinvented themselves as a pop band in the 1980s, scoring a hit with 1983’s ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart’. The band have continued to the present day – albums from around the turn of the century like 1999’s The Ladder and 2001’s Magnification were generally well-received. But this list focuses on the band’s first dozen albums, through the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s – the group largely disappeared from the spotlight after this point.
Yes Albums Ranked: 1968-1987
#12 Big Generator
90125 provided a way forward for Yes, their highest-selling album. They squandered the follow-up with infighting – producer Trevor Horn quit during the prolonged recording process. The record company were keen for another hit, while Anderson wanted to introduce Yes’ new audience to some “Stravinsky-isms”. Given the circumstances, it’s not surprising that Big Generator is a fascinating mess, at times both a commercial 1980s record (the title track) and an oddball arty album (‘Holy Lamb (Song for Harmonic Convergence)’).
As with the above example, Yes followed a triumphant comeback with a disappointing mess of an album. The group lost engineer Eddy Offord, an overlooked player in Yes’ peak era, early in the album’s recording. Tormato is stuffed with cheesy sounds – technology like Squire’s Mu-Tron bass pedals and Wakeman’s Birotron haven’t aged well. Songs like ‘Circus of Heaven’ and ‘Arriving UFO’ use gimmicky sound effects, and even the stronger songs like ‘Release Release’ have overstuffed arrangements. Squire’s ‘Onward’ is lovely, however.
#10 Tales from Topographic Oceans
Yes’ sixth album was derived from a footnote in Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi. After Yes’ impressive growth over their first five albums, it’s a disappointment, with not enough musical ideas to sustain a double album. It topped the UK charts anyway, even though Wakeman later compared it to a padded bra. ‘The Revealing Science of God’ is a memorable opener and ‘Ritual’ is a triumphant closer, but neither justifies its twenty-minute length. ‘The Ancient’ is tough going, the most avant-garde Yes track of the decade.
#9 Time and a Word
The second Yes album follows a similar format to their debut – an eight-track record with a couple of 1960s covers, this time of songs by Richie Havens and Buffalo Springfield. The material is a smidge weaker than the debut overall, but the major difference is the addition of orchestration – it’s not a good fit for Yes, who are busy players. Songs like ‘Then’ are almost comical with their overstuffed arrangements.
Despite Yes’ plethora of lineup changes, Drama is the only album on this list not to feature Jon Anderson on lead vocals. On Drama, the departed Anderson and Wakeman were replaced by The Buggles – Geoff Downes and Trevor Horn had recently enjoyed a hit with ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’. The pair helped Yes to regroup after the messiness of Tormato – closing track ‘Tempus Fugit’ is particularly strong. Without Wakeman and Anderson, the band sound tougher – opener ‘Machine Messiah’ is closer to metal than usual for Yes. This lineup didn’t last long – on the subsequent tour, the band refused to change the key of older Yes tracks to fit Horn’s voice.
The progressive rock genre hadn’t yet solidified when Yes recorded their debut album. Yes is more akin to psychedelic pop, like The Zombies or Simon & Garfunkel. The classic lineup’s rhythm section is already in place – Bruford’s jazzy drumming and Squire’s extroverted bass are both impressive. The most arresting tracks are the extended covers of The Byrds’ ‘I See You’ and The Beatles’ ‘Every Little Thing’.
Yes broke up after touring Drama – Horn became a successful record producer, while Downes and Howe formed Asia. Squire and White linked up with young South African guitarist Trevor Rabin and former Yes keyboardist Tony Kaye. Eventually, Anderson was brought on board as lead vocalist, and the project was renamed Yes. 90125 is the highest-selling Yes album, on the back of the hit ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart’. This iteration of Yes is notable for their harmonies – with Rabin on harmonies, along with Squire and Anderson, they sound gorgeous on tracks like ‘Leave It’ and the soaring closer ‘Hearts’.
#5 The Yes Album
Guitarist Steve Howe joined Yes in 1970, providing the band with more instrumental firepower. Tony Kaye’s keyboard palette is restrictive compared to what Rick Wakeman would offer on the next record. But the unimaginatively titled Yes Album is a major step forward for the band, with all songs written by the group. Howe shares writing credits on key tracks ‘Yours Is No Disgrace’ and ‘Starship Trooper’, as the group venture into the long progressive tracks that they’re celebrated for. The ‘Your Move’ section of ‘I’ve Seen All Good People’ is one of their best pop songs.
The best-loved lineup of Yes – Steve Howe, Chris Squire, Jon Anderson, Bill Bruford, and Rick Wakeman – only recorded two albums together. Wakeman’s array of keyboard instruments like electric piano and mellotron fill out the band’s sound, turning them into a progressive rock monster. Because of time and budget constraints, each member contributed a solo piece to fill out the running time – this makes Fragile a little disjointed. But the full-fledged songs are all magnificent – ‘Roundabout’ is one of the band’s most beloved songs, while ‘Heart of the Sunrise’ and ‘South Side of the Sky’ both rock hard.
#3 Going For The One
A lot of Yes listeners abandoned them after the bloated Tales From Topographic Oceans and missed out on a couple of great albums from later in the 1970s. After a round of solo albums from each member, Relayer keyboardist Patrick Moraz left the band and was replaced by Rick Wakeman. Released in the year of punk, Going For The One is as grandiose as ever. Wakeman famous recorded his church organ parts over the Swiss telephone system. The title track has traces of country with Howe’s pedal steel, while ‘Parallels’ is fuelled by an amazing Chris Squire bass line. ‘Turn of the Century’ is beautifully elegant, while the top ten UK hit ‘Wondrous Stories’ is the most pop-friendly Yes song for years. Closer ‘Awaken’ has stunning moments – the triumphant sequence, where each chord is the fourth note of the previous chord, is gorgeous.
Frustrated with Tales of Topographic Oceans, Wakeman left Yes. Replacement Swiss musician Patrick Moraz brought a jazz fusion sensibility to Yes’ heaviest 1970s album. The entire first side is dedicated to ‘The Gates Of Delirium’, based on Tolstoy’s War and Peace – the metallic noises in the middle of the song were created by White and Anderson pushing over a pile of used car parts. Relayer features the same structure as Close to the Edge, with two shorter pieces on the second side – ‘Sound Chaser’ pushes close to fusion and funk, and it’s sensory overload with Anderson’s “cha-cha-cha-cha”, Squire’s busy fusion bassline, and Moraz’s squiggly video game keyboards. In comparison, ‘To Be Over’ provides a calm closing to processings.
#1 Close To The Edge
Close to the Edge has held the position of my all-time favourite album for the last fifteen years. It’s often ridiculous – after three minutes of discordant jamming, the title song gives way to a monstrous bass groove and Anderson gibberish about a seasoned witch and a rearranged liver. But it’s consistently captivating and creative with great musical moments; Wakeman’s brief harpsichord interlude, and Howe’s warped blues on the introduction to ‘Siberian Khaatru’. Unfortunately, Close to the Edge was the second and final album from Yes’ strongest lineup – drummer Bill Bruford left to join King Crimson, and his replacement Alan White was capable but lacked Bruford’s jazzy creativity.
Do you have a favourite Yes album? Or a top 5?
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Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person.
Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate both Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Based in Fleet Street (New Zealand), he's been writing this blog since around 2000. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.
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